Extended Thoughts on ‘Newsies’
Directed by Kenny Ortega
Written by Bob Tzudiker and Noni White
Starring Christian Bale, David Moscow, Bill Pullman, Robert Duvall, Ann-Margret
Why do we like the things we like? Sure, this may be a almost hilariously simplistic and loaded question, but one that can be fascinating to consider depending on the topic. Think of the major touchstones of nostalgia for most people born in the 1980s. Some are comic strips, such as Calvin and Hobbes; some are TV shows, such as Saved by the Bell; and some are movies, such as The Goonies. For many people, this the pop culture of their childhoods. This is their childhoods as a whole. As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t really wade into nostalgic waters that often.
I realize, of course, that saying I don’t get too nostalgic for my childhood, or for a time that never fully existed in real life as it did in fiction, makes no sense. As the host of a show that looks back at the history of a company whose films have defined people’s childhoods for decades, it’s more than a bit of a contradiction. But while I’m a film buff, an animation buff, and a Disney buff, most of my love has been formed in my adulthood. My love for the work of Walt Disney is less of a cult thing, less of a nostalgic product. And while Walt Disney Pictures absolutely traffics in nostalgia, it’s not often associated with cult fandoms.
When I think of a cult movie, I first think of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. That’s not the only cult film—a recent example, though one that’s a far worse film, is The Room. But cult films aren’t often released by big companies, or if they are, they aren’t often kids’ movies. The raunchier, the more outrageous, the more salacious a movie is, the more likely it may be to get a cult audience. But of course, part of what makes a cult movie get its devotees is that it’s not a massive success. While Walt Disney Pictures has made innumerable financially successful films, they’ve made a few big flops. This year’s winner, and one that’s getting a minor cult following, is John Carter (though a film that made nearly $300 million worldwide being dubbed a flop feels more than a little odd).
I’m saying all of this because I don’t get Newsies. OK, scratch that. I don’t get the passionate fandom that has surrounded Newsies in the two decades since it was released by Walt Disney Pictures. For a long time, I’m fairly certain I wasn’t even aware the film had a fandom of any kind. That changed within the last year, after this financial disaster was turned into an immensely popular Broadway musical. Suddenly, the Newsies fandom was making itself known, making itself public. (Or, perhaps a better way to say it is that the fandom always existed but had a reason to shout about it finally.) I admit, I was surprised because, like many people, I assumed no one remembered Newsies for any other reason than politely ribbing Christian Bale for his attempt at singing and dancing back when he was a teenager.
And yet, the fans of Newsies are legion. Sure, you’ll say, it makes perfect sense: many of these fans may be women who grew up with the film and were attracted to an 18-year old Christian Bale at a young age. Sure, you’ll say, it makes perfect sense: the songs by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman (who were nominated for a Razzie for their work in the film, and won a Tony for their work on the Broadway show, a weird twist they commented on during their acceptance speech) are tuneful and memorable enough to burrow into a kid’s brain. Or, hell, the movie aired enough on The Disney Channel back in the day so that enough people just watched it and loved it; call it the Shawshank effect (as in, when TNT aired The Shawshank Redemption roughly a billion times in the decade after its release, thus raising its profile with many film fans). Whatever the case, there’s likely a reason or two for the film’s cult status.
But I do not get it, in context of the actual movie. I don’t mean to criticize this film’s fandom, by the way. Everyone loves certain movies, and some of those movies have impressively avid fanbases. I’m basically just baffled that this particular movie has a fanbase, based on watching the film for the first time in nearly 20 years. (Like many, I saw the film on The Disney Channel, but my memory of watching the movie is more a memory of knowing I watched it, as opposed to what transpired on screen.) Newsies is a strange beast, a musical that doesn’t often balance the singing-and-dancing aspects of any such film in the genre with the many, many scenes without them. Part of the issue is that none of the people in Newsies are very good singers, especially Bale and Bill Pullman as a helpful reporter. Bale gets more songs to work with, unfortunately, and after I got over the initial weirdness of watching Batman belt out a number while dressed as a newsboy, the harsh reality set in: his style of singing, almost forcing words out of his body, is too reminiscent of the garish and laughable work Pierce Brosnan did in Mamma Mia.
The best I can say of Newsies is that I feared I’d hate it, and I didn’t. But, as mentioned on the podcast, the word I kept thinking of, one that will not endear me to the film’s devotees, is “silly.” Because while the basic plot of the film—the true story of newsboys going on strike to protest prices levied against them by newspaper tycoons Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst—isn’t problematic, the execution is. Director and choreographer Kenny Ortega seems most invested in the dancing, which is fine, but it feels like it’s from a completely different film. When, for example, Bale’s character Jack, a seen-it-all newsboy who winds up leading his comrades in New York City on a massive strike, sings of his longing to go to Santa Fe and be free, it’s a bit too corny and plaintive, but hey, the kid has a dream, and here it is in song form. Fine. But then, randomly, he starts dancing.
“Randomly” is the key word here. Some of the greatest movie musicals incorporate dancing in a natural fashion. When Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly begin tap-dancing or, in Kelly’s case, dancing in any form, it doesn’t feel like it’s come out of nowhere. The movements, the lines, the passion, the emotion: all comes forth from these men (and any number of great female dancers) fluidly, as if they’re walking down the street. When Gene Kelly springs forth onto a lamppost, swinging an umbrella around as torrential rain slaps his face continuously in Singin’ In The Rain, it doesn’t blindside the audience. This is a natural progression. There is no such progression in the “Santa Fe” scene in Newsies, or any others. Bale dances as if the movement is either exploding out of his body, or as if someone’s got him on strings. Even if we stretch to say that the dancing here is meant to be unnatural, because the main characters are awkward kids trying to gain agency in their lives…well, it’s a stretch. Unnatural is unnatural.
As startling as it is to watch Bale dance, the same criticism goes for every other character. The dancing sequences seem shoehorned in entirely. Learning that this film was originally meant to be a straight drama, as opposed to a fairly light-hearted, Disney-fied musical doesn’t surprise me. But I wonder if the straight drama route was a better one to travel down. Most of the choices Ortega and screenwriters Bob Tzudiker and Noni White make feel a little too family-friendly, from giving each of the newsboys quick-to-remember and fake-sounding nicknames to a highly stylized New York backdrop. There’s never a point in Newsies where the struggles the characters are meant to deal with connect with this audience member in any way. Great actors can vanish into a part, and great films can make you forget you’re watching something fictional. While Newsies has a few of the former, it’s not the latter.
Another issue is that this movie’s full of actors doing a not-so-great job. For example, the climax of the film involves a scene between Christian Bale and Robert Duvall. Bale and Duvall may be from different generations, but are among the best performers within those eras. Duvall, in particular, is one of the greatest American actors to grace the silver screen. Having these two in a scene together should be a big deal—even if Bale wasn’t as accomplished in 1992, the very notion of these two sharing a moment is exciting. The script fails them, but their choices as actors do too. Bale’s over-the-top Noo Yawk accent, which frequently sounds like a battle between his natural, British accent and this forced and outrageously fake-seeming voice, can be chalked up to a young actor trying and failing at something. But Duvall’s entire performance is a mess. Joseph Pulitzer was a Hungarian-American, so I guess Duvall’s vague attempts at an accent (though mostly in the second half of the film) make sense. That doesn’t mean the attempts sound anywhere close to appropriate or accurate.
What’s more, Duvall overacts from the get-go, all but twirling his mustache to denote how much of a villain his Pulitzer is. None of the performances here are very subtle, but most of the actors are young enough where they may not know better. But Duvall, one of the masters of acting, deciding to be hammy at all times is kind of heartbreaking. I didn’t expect much from even Ann-Margret or Bill Pullman, two of the other notable adults in the film. I expected too much, apparently, from Robert Duvall.
I wasn’t expecting much in general, mind you. I had really no idea what I was going to get with Newsies. But I think I was bound to not fully understand the cult surrounding the film. Any movie with a cult is rarely going to get new members two decades after the fact. Yes, I’m sure some people watch this film for the first time, perhaps now that it’s on Blu-ray, and will become converts. But just as many people may watch it, and walk out (physically or mentally), scratching their heads, asking “That’s all there is?” Part of the magic of a movie-based fandom is being there at the ground floor, relatively speaking. For me, at least, entering the world of the fandom so late, Newsies is just a goofy curiosity, not something to get excited about.